Grilling continues its reign as a popular American pastime – 71 percent of grill owners use it to improve a meal's flavor, more than half say it's for personal enjoyment and another 42 percent choose it for entertaining, according to the most recent consumer study by the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association (HPBA). Gourmet retailers hold a prime position to offer the right tools and equipment that will help shoppers happily grill in any season.
Shoppers may be looking for basics or ready to go all in for a complete outdoor kitchen. Understanding their needs is key to creating the right product mix of equipment and accessories in the grilling department.
"In our store, we see several different types of customers," says Bob Carroll, president of BBQ Outfitters, with two locations in Austin and San Antonio. "One type is the 'building an outdoor kitchen' folks. We work with them on a budget and what they want to use in their kitchen ... Then there's the stand-alone grill/smoker customers. There are dozens of choices here, but the Big Green Egg and Weber Gas Grills are two of the dominant products. Pellet grills and smokers are also the rage these days. They are quickly catching up with all our other stand-alone grills."
And while not every gourmet store finds it feasible to invest in selling grills and smokers, serious grillers turn to specialty stores for their meat and veggie choices again and again after the initial equipment purchase. That's when shoppers may be open to purchasing tools and gadgets to enhance their cooking and entertaining experiences.
Gardiner's Market in South Glastonbury, Conn., doesn't sell grills, but it does sell a variety of grilling necessities, from spatulas, tongs and charcoal to lighters and skewers. "Most of our customers are quick-and-easy grillers. We sell a lot more propane than charcoal," says Andy Murphy, manager. And shoppers have requested more items, including digital thermometers, that the store may consider stocking in the future.
Scanning what's new in gadgets and grilling tools is also common among shoppers at BBQ Outfitters. "We sell lots of charcoal, smoking woods, cooking tools and gadgets, spices and cookbooks," says Carroll, who adds these items are often purchased for family and friends. "They make great gifts. In our store we sell lots of gift certificates and even have some wedding registries. Folks coming in to just browse always seem to grab a little something for themselves."
Grillers Get Fired Up
An evolution has taken place among home cooks who enjoy grilling and barbecue, says Henrik Stepanyan, CEO of Barbeques Galore, with more than 20 locations throughout the United States and Canada, but primarily located in Southern California. More shoppers look to weeknight grilling for a quick meal, Stepanyan says, and are increasingly passionate about what they prepare in their free time. "People are definitely getting more creative. With the growth in outdoor kitchens, we're seeing a lot of islands being built on patios with a gas grill and either a smoker or a charcoal grill alongside. The common theme is using the gas grill for the weekdays and smokers on the weekends."
Seeking better flavor is a major movement among grillers, and barbecue guru and cookbook author Steven Raichlen, who traditionally puts out a list of his trend predictions for the coming year, wrote on his website that almond wood will stand out in 2017 from typically used hickory and apple woods. He also noted the salt slab trend continuing among home cooks, but not just cooking meat and veggies on top of the salt. Instead, he suggested cooking under the slabs, in the style of an Italian brick chicken recipe, could take hold.
Flavor is foremost, agrees Carroll of BBQ Outfitters, who is seeing shoppers paying attention to the type of wood used to impart their smoke. "There is a major move away from gas grills. We are feeling a wave of folks wanting the great flavor that only a wood or charcoal fired grill/smoker can produce," he says. "Gas grills still dominate in the outdoor kitchen world. The trend in outdoor kitchens is just people building more of them. A lot more folks are deciding that they can fit a beautiful outdoor kitchen in their backyard that won't break the bank." He agrees with Stepanyan that homeowners with outdoor kitchens want both gas and wood options.
Shift Away from Gas
Both these barbecue-focused retailers see smokers and wood-fired cooking as the top trend – with no signs of stopping. "Historically it's been gas grills making up the bulk of sales, but smokers in the last 12 to 18 months have seen an uptick," Stepanyan says. "With the popularity of barbecue shows on TV, people come in looking to duplicate what they've seen. A lot of the barbecue TV shows highlight smoking competitions, and we've seen that trend in our stores."
Regional differences still play a large role in shaping the type of grilling people do and what equipment and tools they look for, says Mike Williams, marketing and sales manager for Kenyon, a Connecticut-based manufacturer of grills, cooktops, smokers and accessories.
"A few factors that come into play when people shop for grills and accessories are their geographical location and whether they live in a house or a multi-family dwelling," he says. "Many people who live in colder climates look for something they can use inside, while those in warmer climates tend to grill outdoors year-round. And if you live in an apartment or condo, recent changes to fire codes ban using any type of grill outside on balconies, so it limits consumers. We have designed our products so they are UL-approved for indoor and outdoor use and in any location."
Grill producer Industrial Revolution, based in Tukwila, Wash., is also creating products that work well for city dwellers or those who have small spaces, including the company's Flatpack Portable Grill and Firepit.
"One of the trends driving our design of the Flatpack Portable Grill and Firepit, and ultimately an even smaller version coming this year, is the desire to have one single piece of equipment to use in many different situations," says Addison Nanney, marketing coordinator for Industrial Revolution. "You could use it in the city yet it is still small enough to be carried into a more remote location. Perfect for three to four people, it can pack flat and allows for a safe, controlled cooking area that can be used in all facets of an outdoor lifestyle."
More Grilling Trends
Breakfast is another area where grilling may be changing traditional ways of dining and entertaining. Eleven percent of grill and smoker owners cooked their morning meals outside, according to a survey by the HBPA. Retailers may want to add breakfast items and tools to grilling sections as a way to suggest cooking pancakes, meats and other food on the grill, sparking new sales in this category.
"Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and the one that is most often overlooked in this hectic world," says Jack Goldman, president and CEO of HPBA, noting that any typical start-of-the-day food, even coffee, can be made on a grill. "Weekends are the perfect time to slow things down, fire up the grill and enjoy some much-needed family time around an open flame. Those who try it will immediately discover that barbecuing your breakfast can be just as enjoyable – and delicious – as your evening meals."
While digital thermometers for grilling are nothing new, technology is giving thermometers an upgrade and linking them with smartphone and tablet apps. FireBoard, based in Kansas City, Mo., now offers a smart thermometer that is connected to the cloud for remote monitoring of smoking and grilling in both hot and cold environments. For the serious griller, a FireBoard Extreme BBQ Edition is available that can support up to six grilling probes for a variety of different meats cooking simultaneously.
"The idea was born from a lack of solutions available for monitoring temperature remotely," says Steven Briggeman, one of the company's founders. "FireBoard utilizes both WiFi and Bluetooth to keep data synchronized in the cloud, allowing remote monitoring from anywhere easily. We've had great support from the barbecue community and are looking forward to a busy grilling and smoking season."
While creativity and ingenuity can be found in many of today's grilling trends, some tools and recipes stand the test of time, says Tristan Clausell of ForTheChef.com, based in Saddle Brook, N.J. Among the many grilling items his business sells, having a proper barbecue tool set is still a priority for his shoppers, including long-handled turners, tongs, basting brushes, knives, cutting boards, turning forks and grill brushes. "Proper grilling tools are an every-year trend as we all want to practice healthy flavors and cleanliness," he says. "For barbecues, bean and veggie burgers are becoming increasingly popular. However, their ingredients can dry out easily. I suggest investing in a basting cover tool to collect the smoky flavors, prevent grease splashing, as well as retaining moisture to prevent them from drying out."
Because grilling and entertaining go hand in hand, Clausell also hears from shoppers who are preparing more small plates instead of just main courses over fire. "It's the age of appetizers and with a lot of small bites making it on the grill, we can't forget the classic shish kabob," he says. "Fixing your meat and veggies on a bamboo stick is environmentally healthy and the wood on the grill just adds a pinch of greatness to your kabobs."
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